On a recent bike ride along the bosque’s riverside trail where it flanks the Tijeras Arroyo, I spotted two men on four-wheelers in the bottom of the concrete ditch, gunning their way west toward the river. This is the end of the miles-long run for the Tijeras Arroyo, which carries runoff all the way from the Sandias through the city and eventually merges with the South Diversion Channel before cascading through the outfall (an image-rich word referring to the open mouth of the concrete channel) into the Rio Grande floodplain. The two off-roaders saw me following them and blazed around the opposite corner of the outfall and out of sight before I could grab my camera. They knew they weren’t supposed to be there.
“Country-wide, Western-wide, ATVs are the worst thing you can have in a watershed,” said former Albuquerque Mayor and current New Mexico Natural Resource Trustee Jim Baca in a telephone interview. “There is nothing positive about them at all.”
After heading down to the floodplain, which is currently full with spring runoff, and taking photos of tire damage and discarded tires (which cannot necessarily be attributed to ATVs), I decided to try and report the violation. What began as a search for one telephone number began a city-wide conversation with city officials and key public figures – all of them taking time out of their day to discuss the issue with me at length, including Baca – about the problems with ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) on public land and the ways in which the city and county can get better at handling them.
“Most of the arroyos should be marked with signs, and they are definitely off-limits,” said a representative for the city’s Open Space Division
, which manages the bosque between the levee and the river, and Montessa Park, a 577-acre special-use off-road play area that claims the Tijeras Arroyo as its northern boundary. “Especially with the fire danger being so high, any spark could set something off.”
Being my initial contact, the Open Space Division representative was the first to tell me that the main reason for keeping Albuquerque’s enormous storm drainages off-limits to the public is for people’s safety. By three degrees of separation, I myself know people who have died in violent flash floods in the arroyos. But as for the effects of ATVs on the city’s water quality, Open Space couldn’t comment. And when I asked who should be notified of future violations, the representative gave me the number of the Open Space Police (873.6632), who would definitely be interested in hearing about off-roaders in the bosque floodplains and on the bike path, but who might not be able to do anything about the drainages.
“The best thing people can do is get descriptions of (off-road) vehicles, the time of the incident, the location and where they were headed,” she said. “If you know where people are getting into the drainages, that’s what we’re really interested in.”
She continued by saying that, even if APD and County Sheriffs are able to respond, catching offenders down in the arroyos is not an easy task for accessibility reasons. And though APD assured me they will respond to calls about arroyos within city limits, the South Diversion outfall is out of their jurisdiction.
So I dug around to find out who manages that particular slice of the South Diversion Channel and came across this highly complicated maintenance map
, which shows that no fewer than six different entities are responsible for all the ditches in Albuquerque, including the City Arroyo Maintenance and the New Mexico Department of Transportation, to name a couple. The South Diversion outfall happens to belong to the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority (AMAFCA)
Loren Hines, Real Estate Manager for AMAFCA, reiterated Open Space’s sentiments about safety and the difficulty of catching offenders, but expounded on his organization’s concern for water quality.
“There is a concern for water quality to have unauthorized vehicles in there,” he said after explaining that AMAFCA’s work crews drive vehicles from their own fleet into the arroyos for maintenance purposes, “as well as it being a trespass. If we know where they’re getting in at, we’ll try and block it off. We do have an agreement with city and county law enforcement to enforce city and county ordinances in our drainages, but they generally don’t respond to trespass issues because they can’t get their vehicles in there.”
Together, Hines and I figured out that ATVs can easily access the floodplain and the South Diversion outfall near the bridge over the San Jose Drain – directly adjacent to the outfall – which is managed by the city. I often see street-legal vehicles parked there, and a road wide enough for regular trucks goes right past the bridge. The disturbing thing is that I’ve seen ATV tracks climbing straight up the dirt embankment that edifies the concrete drainage wall, completely avoiding the road altogether, and tracks on the fragile sand dunes indicates they’re using the bosque terrain to practice their technical climbs.
Though Hines gladly promised to send someone out to take a look at ways to block ATV entrance, I have a feeling any type of barricade will be ineffective. My summer work
in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon has given me plenty of experience with ATVs and their defiance of boundaries.
At this point, I was getting that familiar sensation that only far-reaching public awareness will make a difference.
From Hines, I was directed to Kathy Verhage who works on permits for the Storm Water Drainage Engineering Division of the city’s Engineering Department. She’s responsible for getting approval for drainage engineers’ designs. Albuquerque, with a population over 250,000, must meet more stringent standards than other smaller towns. This year, the city’s Municipal Separate Storm Permit, which deals with the water quality of Albuquerque’s storm sewer systems, is up for renewal. For these types of permits, samples are taken directly out of drainages and tested for quality, and the South Diversion outfall is one of the testing sites.
“Leaving oil deposits right next to the Rio Grande does present a problem. It’s just like dumping oil right in there,” she said. “But I did recently review data from the Tijeras outfall and oil levels are below detection limits.”
This is good news for now, but Verhage wonders about the steady increase of ATV recreation in the city and whether or not it could pose a problem in the future.
“This could be something in the future we might need to address,” she said, “maybe partner with Open Space and AMAFCA to find a way to solve the problem.”
Besides oil deposits, Verhage pointed to the real problem with ATV tire damage, a thing she refers to as turbidity, which indicates the cloudiness caused by floating particles in water. Erosion and sand displacement by ATVs increases the level of turbidity in local watersheds and makes it difficult for the Water Treatment Facility to properly treat the water contained in them. Baca expressed the same concern, but from a water conservation standpoint.
“The more tires break down banks and flatten out soils in watersheds, the more sediment gets into the water and the faster the water evaporates,” he said with a laugh. “I’m personally not going to buy any more cars from Honda until they stop making those machines.”
On Baca’s blogsite
, he shows images of ATV advertisements from Honda and Yamaha where riders are splashing through water in natural settings. This could be dangerous persuasion for new riders, because in most public parks and forests that allow off-roading, such as the Willamette, off-roading is usually banned from open water and water drainages to keep oil deposits out and turbidity down. The end result of turbidity besides water treatment difficulties is a habitat where fish and other wildlife have difficulty breathing. Floating sediment is to fish what pollution is to humans and mammals.
“The best thing people can do,” Baca continued, “is to carry video cameras, take pictures, post them on the web, get them out there. Do whatever it takes to raise awareness. Eventually we need ordinances enacted to confiscate vehicles from violators after one or two offenses. There are currently no incentives for them to obey the laws. We do it with drunk drivers.”
After Baca’s interview, I wish I had gotten my camera out in time, but he also warns that confrontation with off-roaders could be dangerous, and he discouraged my suggestion of a citizen watch force.
Chris Johnson, president of the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance (NMOHVA)
has not yet responded to my request for an interview.